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Snap elections, SLAPP sentences and a Holocaust law

A devastating precedent in Turkey, Insta-blocked in Russia, a snap election in Azerbaijan, rappers prosecuted in Spain, Poland's Holocaust Law, 'intimidating' public officials, Hungary's 'Stop Soros' laws, SLAPPs, bloggers sentenced in Belarus, women journalists forced to strip in Ukraine…

An inscription reading 'Denizfree' is seen at the headquarters of German newspaper
An inscription reading 'Denizfree' is seen at the headquarters of German newspaper "Die Welt" in Berlin, on 16 February 2018, after Turkey released German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel from prison


"A devastating precedent"

In Turkey, the trials, arrests and convictions of journalists and human rights defenders continued. A good, regular summary of these can be found at the Platform for Independent Journalism. Meanwhile, here is an overview of some of the standout stories this month.

On 15 February 2018, a court convicted journalists Mehmet Altan (65), his brother Ahmet Altan (67) and Nazli Illicak (73) of "involvement in the 2016 [failed] coup attempt." They were sentenced to life in prison. This is the first time that journalists in Turkey had been convicted on charges related to the coup. The court's decision was roundly condemned by rights groups and IFEX members. Reporters Without Borders, ARTICLE 19 and PEN International (all of whom had been observing the trial) reported "profound violations of the defendants' rights to a fair trial." Jennifer Clement, International President of PEN International, warned that the decision had set a "devastating precedent" for other journalists being tried on charges ostensibly connected to the coup. The International Press Institute, Human Rights Watch, the Platform for Independent Journalism, the International Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists all issued statements condemning the verdict. Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, issued a joint statement pointing to the lack of substantial evidence against the journalists, the lack of a fair trial and the "magnitude of [the] punishments" handed down; they called on Turkey to reverse the decision and release the journalists. A good summary of all the reactions to the trial verdict can be found on the Global Voices website.

In other grim news, a draft bill which would give new censorship powers to the state regulator is under review by lawmakers. The bill has yet to be put to a vote in parliament, but, if passed into law, it would allow the state regulator to apply for a court order to block, remove or censor content deemed objectionable from any website within 24 hours; the website would then have to contest the decision.

The crackdown triggered by online criticism of Turkey's military operation in Afrin goes on. So far, there have been 573 people detained for making critical comments on social media about the offensive.

However, there were two pieces of good news. The first of these was the release of Deniz Yücel, a Turkish-German journalist who had been in jail in Turkey for a year (without any charges against him)….

And the second piece of good news was the announcement that IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu had received the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award for Freedom of Speech and Expression. Erol was given the prize in recognition of his "tireless and persistent dedication to defending freedom of speech and expression."

Insta-blocked in Russia

The first round of Russia's presidential election will take place on 18 March, and - as is common during the lead up to elections there - attempts are being made to quieten the opposition. It was reported this month that Instagram had agreed to a demand by the Russian censor that it block any posts in Russian relating to corruption claims made by the prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny is a long-time anti-corruption activist and has been barred from running as a candidate in the election; he was detained last month and his office raided.

Igor Rudnikov, editor of the independent newspaper Novye Kolesa, completed his 100th day of detention on 9 February and remains behind bars. Rudnikov was arrested on dubious extortion charges in November 2017. Reporters Without Borders has called for his immediate release.

Members of the European Parliament called for the release of Oyub Titiev, director of the Memorial Human Rights Centre in the Chechen Republic. Titiev was arrested on 9 January 2018 and charged with illegal drug possession (a common tactic used against activists and journalists in the region). Titiev's arrest seems to be part of an orchestrated campaign of intimidation directed at Memorial.

There was very welcome news on 15 February when Russia's Supreme Court released the Uzbek LGBTQI+ journalist Ali Feruz from detention, allowing him to leave for Germany. Feruz had been detained for six months on accusations of working illegally and faced deportation to Uzbekistan, from where he had fled seeking asylum. Feruz said that he had been tortured by Uzbek security services and feared being targeted again if he returned.

Targeting Soros, immigrants and NGOs

In Hungary, the government submitted three bills to parliament this month which would place a punitive administrative burden on civil society (specifically NGOs working on issues related to immigration). The draft legislation has been criticised as an intensification of Hungary's attack on rights groups operating within its borders. Collectively, the bills are popularly known as the "Stop Soros" laws. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have provided an analysis of how the government has been exploiting law to restrict the activities of rights organisations. IFEX members signed on to a public declaration of solidarity with Hungarian civil society; the German Government and the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights have spoken publicly about their concerns that Hungary is deliberately penalising rights groups.

Gender focus

This month, courts in Turkey backed the decision of the governor of Ankara to ban LGBTQI+ events in the region. Turkish LGBTQI+ groups had unsuccessfully appealed the decision. The governor introduced the ban in November 2017 on grounds of "public morality."

In Ukraine, there were extremely disturbing reports that women journalists were subjected to particularly invasive searches before being allowed to attend the trial of ousted President Yanukovych; some reported being made to strip to the waist by women police officers. Several of the journalists complained that male journalists had not faced the same treatment. Police said that they were looking for members of the all-woman activist group, Femen, which often carries out topless protests.

Holocaust (denial) law

February saw another worrying attack on free expression in Poland, this time in the form of a bizarre new law that threats to jail anyone who suggests that Poland had a role in the Holocaust. It provides for punishments of up to three years in prison. The law (known popularly as the Holocaust Law) presents a very serious threat not only to journalists, but also to educators and historical debate. ARTICLE 19 registered its concerns on the Council of Europe's Platform for Journalists' Safety before the law was signed by the Polish president. Late in the month, a journalist for Polish public radio resigned in protest after being ordered not to report on preparations by an opposition party to amend the law.

Snap presidential election, opposition figures behind bars

The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has called a snap presidential election for April; the election was originally scheduled for the October. The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) issued a statement protesting the move, saying that the "serious electoral flaws and ongoing human rights abuses by the Azerbaijani government undermine any meaningful prospect of free and fair elections." IRFS continues to provide an excellent summary of the attacks on free expression in Azerbaijan, including the government's use of cyber attacks on independent media. Freedom House reports that there are 161 people currently behind bars on political charges; these include opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, who has been in jail since February 2013.

Intimidating public officials?

UK Prime Minister Theresa May used the centenary of women's suffrage in Britain to announce that her government would look into introducing a law prohibiting the "intimidation" of public officials (both women and men). Like a lot of announcements coming from the embattled government, this one lacked detail and seems to be an attempt to grab a headline, which can be a driving force behind so much bad legislation. There are already laws against harassment, stalking and hate speech in the UK, so it's hard to know what more this law could offer. However, there is a genuine suspicion that such a law might be abused by public officials to shut down passionate voters. (There's a nasty precedent for this in the case of the Conservative MP Lucy Allan, who faked a death threat and attributed it to an actual constituent in 2015.) Liberty, the human rights law NGO, put into words what many felt about the Prime Minister's announcement:

Glorifying terrorism and insulting the crown

Last year was a very bad year for free expression in Spain. This year seems to be continuing the trend, with prosecutions of rappers and ordinary citizens under anachronistic laws against "glorifying terrorism" or "insulting the crown" showing no sign of abating. February saw the Supreme Court confirm the three-and-a-half year jail sentence handed to the rapper Valtonyc after he was convicted of breaking both these laws on the basis of his lyrics; another rapper, Pablo Hasel, is currently on trial on the same charges and faces almost three years in jail if convicted.

There is growing popular resentment in Spain at the increasingly draconian approach that the authorities are taking towards free expression. In mid-February, there were coordinated demonstrations across the country to protest the prosecutions of rappers and other individuals who had expressed themselves freely in song or on Twitter; 75 people were detained in 2017 because of messages they had posted on social media.

The Catalan civil society leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, are still detained pending trial on sedition charges following Catalonia's outlawed independence referendum of October 2017. Amnesty International has described the charges against them as excessive, calling for them to be dropped and for both men to be released. They have now been in jail for five months.

In brief

• In February it was reported that Igor Guzhva, editor-in-chief of the generally pro-Russian news website Strana, had fled Ukraine after receiving death threats. Guzhva said that the Ukrainian police had not acted on of several of his requests to have the threats investigated.
• Later in the month, masked law enforcement officers raided the Kiev offices of Media Holding Vesti, which includes Radio Vesti and the Vesti newspaper. The officers used tear gas and, according to the company's editor-in-chief, confiscated equipment. No explanation was apparently given for the raid, though Vesti's editorial line is considered to be pro-Russian; the offices remain closed.
• In late February, a cross-party group of MEPs called on the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, to introduce a new European Union directive to stop SLAPPs (properly known as strategic lawsuits against public participation). SLAPPs are abusive lawsuits which are intended to intimidate critical journalists into silence or tie them up in costly, long-running court cases which prevent them from doing their work. The murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had to fight a number of these lawsuits.
• In Belarus, three bloggers each received five-year suspended sentences this month after being convicted of "inciting racial hatred" in their blog posts. Dzmitry Alimkin, Yury Paulavets and Syarhey Shyptsenka were released in court after having already spent over a year in jail awaiting trial. Paulavets's posts had accused the government of using anti-Russian sentiment to distract the public from Belarus's economic problems; Alimkin's posts had called for the unification of Belarus with Russia; Shyptsenka's posts had suggested that the supposedly frosty relationship between Minsk and Moscow could result in a situation similar to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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